Book Review: “When We Had Summer” Sincerely Explores Loss, Change and Growing Up

When We Had Summer by Jennifer Castle is an important and special story about loss, change and the often topsy-turvy transition from childhood to young adult. The story follows a tight-knit, daring, eclectic group of friends who dedicate every summer to completing their #SummerSistersBucketList together, even after one of the crew sadly passes away.

What is When We Had Summer about?

Best friends Carly, Daniella, Lainie and Penny – aka the self-proclaimed #SummerSisters – have been coming to the New Jersey shore town of Ocean Park Heights ever since they could remember. And every year, the girls make a bucket list and dedicate their entire summer to completing every item on it, documenting their escapades on FotoSlam for everyone to see. It’s their tradition, and as long as the Summer Sister had each other, the rocky jetty on the shore, and their bucket list, that would never change. Right?

But then, tragedy strikes after Carly – the mastermind behind the bucket list – unexpectedly passes away. As the remaining Summer Sisters try to wrap their heads around their best friend’s death, life seems determined to throw more curveballs at the girls, threatening to split them up for good. Daniella is accepted to a prestigious music academy in New York City, Lainie finds out her family is moving to Florida, and Penny struggles to find her footing as she feels ready to leave childhood behind more quickly than either of her friends. What will hold them together with Carly gone and the Summer Sisters seemingly over?

Then, Daniella finds Carly’s final bucket list. And just like that, the Summer Sisters are back! Things are just different this time and don’t always go as planned. The girls try their hardest to navigate grief, loss, and coming-of-age woes while keeping the Summer Sisters – and Carly’s memory – alive.

The Summer Sisters teach readers how to navigate change

I describe this book as “important” because it is the first young adult novel I have read in a long time that deals with the reality of a premature passing. The Summers Sisters are aged around 13 years old and they have just lost their close friend, Carly, to illness. Author Jennifer Castle does a gentle but sincere job of addressing such a death, in that she does not focus on Carly’s illness or the passing itself, but more on what comes next for Daniella, Lainie and Penny, as well as Carly’s family. As expected, the girls deal with the loss differently despite being united in their grief. I do not recall reading many books like this when I was a young adult (especially one’s that address the death of such a young person), but I think if I had, they would have helped me better understand and navigate such ups and downs in my own life.

Another, albeit related, theme in this story that warrants applause in its execution is change. In addition to Carly’s passing, the girls are all moving into a different chapter of their lives which comes with its own set of challenges. Daniella battles anxiety with her move to NYC, Lainie struggles with accepting her grandmother’s decision to not only sell the family business but to train the new buyers as well, and Penny prepares for her first date – and her first kiss – without the close support of her friends who all seem preoccupied in their own worlds. The themes throughout this book are raw and real but are handled with grace and care, which make it a heartbreaking but necessary read for avid young readers.

When We Had Summer not only raises critical themes and issues, it also offers suggestions in how to perceive them. My favorite quote from my favorite character in this story sums this up perfectly:

“I could say that [my] life is falling apart,” Nana said, looking Lainie square in the eye. “But I don’t. Because life is never falling apart. It’s just never perfect either. Not for anyone. Life is just… life.”

Such frank commentary appearing throughout this story, beautifully portrayed by compelling and genuine characters, adds to Carlile’s effortless and natural storytelling. When We Had Summer might be a tear-jerker at times, but it is worth it, and hey, there’s nothing wrong with tears. They are simply part of life.

When We Had Summer will be released on April 25, 2023.

Jess Salafia Ward
Jess Salafia Ward is an Aussie, an attorney and a die-hard Disney fan. She grew up in a city not too far from P. Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney; and she still enjoys dancing around in Snow White pajamas and serenading her family members with Sleeping Beauty’s “Once Upon A Dream” (though, unlike Princess Aurora, she is not blessed with the gift of song). Jess is an Elvis-lover like Lilo, and when she doesn't have her nose stuck in a book, she delights in sharing with fellow fans all things Disney, books, movies and history.